Hey there, folks! Another story at last! Sorry for the delay! As you know I am very busy at the moment with working at the stables (I've been offered an apprenticeship for next year!) and I've also just started rehearsing for a show (I'm the maid, and a couple of extras in 'The Railway Children! My sister is the main part: Bobbie Waterbury!), so I am working non-stop at the moment, and don't have much time for writing!

First I want to say a huge thankyou to Nina and mkat for their great story ideas. I look forward to using them all to write my stories (just once again, please forgive me if it takes me a while to get around to writing them!). I have every intention of using all of your story ideas that you gave me, as well as my own ideas, too - you'll just have to excuse me if it takes me a while to write them all!

Phew, all that being said, I just want to say I hope you all enjoy this story as much as all the others. Rachel D :-)

Serpents and Swindlers

Chapter 1 - The Counterfeit Money

Heath ambled out of the newspaper store, reading the Stockton Eagle that he held in his hands. He was so focused on the contents of the paper that he didn't see Mr. Bridgeman walking right towards him, carrying his person as a declaration of how popular and important he was in Stockton. Heath bumped right into Mr. Bridgeman, making the older man step back in affront, dropping his briefcase at the same time.

"Oh, pardon me, Mr. Bridgeman," Heath said. "I didn't see you there. I was just reading about the circulation of counterfeit money in the paper, and didn't see you coming. I guess I should have been looking where I was going."

"That's quite alright," Mr. Bridgeman said in an irritated manner, hurriedly stooping down to pick up his briefcase. In its fall, the case had come undone, so Mr. Bridgeman quickly fastened it back up. Despite his haste, he hadn't been quick enough to hide the contents from Heath's view.

"You always carry all your money around with you?" Heath asked, insinuating to the case where, just now, he had seen rows of neatly bundled hundred dollar bills. "It seems to me the safest place for all that money would be in a bank!"

"Well that, Mr. Barkley, is none of your business!"

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry," Heath said. "Here," he added, quickly spying one of the hundred dollar bills on the floor and picking it up. "You dropped this one."

Mr. Bridgeman hesitated, and then snatched the money from Heath's hand, hurriedly stomping off with punctuated irritation.

Heath shook his head. Mr. Bridgeman was a popular man, but when he got his dander up, then he was unbearable! With another shake of the head, Heath returned to his paper.

"As the rise in counterfeit money increases, our agents have informed us that the counterfeited money is all in one hundred dollar bills," he read on. Heath paused. One hundred dollar bills! Why, Mr. Bridgeman had hundred dollar bills in his briefcase! Surely, surely they weren't counterfeit. Heath stopped dead in his tracks as he realized the accusation that such an idea made. It was denouncing a leading citizen of Stockton as a base and swindling cheat! How could he accuse a man of something like that when all he saw was some money in his briefcase? Heath continued walking towards his horse, folded the paper up, and put it in his pocket. He certainly didn't like to say it – but something told him that his suspicions were far from wrong!

"Well, it's certainly nice to have you all here before dinner," Victoria said, seating herself down in the living room with the rest of the family. "How has today served each one of you?"

"Well, you know I went to a meeting at the orphanage, and then helped look after some of the children today," Audra said. "Rachel came with me and helped look after them, too."

"Well isn't that nice!" Jarrod said, smiling encouragingly at Rachel. "Did you enjoy it?"

"They're so sweet," Rachel said. "They have so little – nothing, even. I just feel like I want to hold them close and keep them safe from any more sadness."

"You're beginning to sound like Audra!" Nick said, helping himself to a glass and pouring himself a drink.

"And why shouldn't I," Rachel declared proudly, "when she sets me such a good example?"

Victoria smiled. "And what did you do for the rest of your day?"

"Oh, the usual," Rachel said. "I went riding, then I did some drawing."

"Jarrod?" Victoria turned to her eldest. "How has your day been?"

"Fine, thank you. Just fine! I've been sat in a chair behind a desk in my office, feeling the sun pour through my window, and longing to get outside."

"Poor Jarrod!" Rachel said. "I could never stay cooped up inside when the sun is shining!"

"Oh, I don't mind. You know I like my work!" Jarrod said, smiling.

"Nick, how have things been on the ranch today?"

"Fine, fine! Another couple of broncs have been broken, and Sugar's about ready to burst by the looks of her. She'll be birthing her foal any day now."

"Oh, Nick! Will it be a filly or a colt?" Rachel asked excitedly.

"Well, we'll just have to wait and see!" Nick answered, smiling at her eagerness.

"I'm so excited! I can hardly wait!"

"Heath?" Victoria said, turning with concerned eyes on her son's quietness. "Heath?"

Heath's head snapped up. "Sorry. What did you say?"

"I was about to ask you how your day's been. If it's been as gloomy as your face is now, I'm sure we won't care to hear in case it lowers our high spirits!"

Heath smiled at her, knowing that she was trying to cheer his downcast features. "I'm not gloomy," Heath said, with one of his half smiles. "I'm just thinking."

"Well, if thinking causes such a melancholy countenance, then don't think!" Rachel said. "I often don't!"

"And it hasn't always done you any good!" Nick reminded her. "How about the time that you rode that bronc mare…"

"Oh, hush up!" Rachel said, tossing her head and flicking her hair towards Nick.

"What is bothering you, Heath?" Audra asked her big brother. "You don't seem yourself."

"I'm alright – honest. I'm fine," Heath answered.

There was an awkward silence as everyone examined the contradiction in Heath's words and voice. He said one thing, but his voice and face declared another. Something was weighing upon his mind, and Victoria was determined to find out!

"Well," she finally said, breaking the silence. "It's time for dinner now – shall we eat?" She stood up and allowed Jarrod to escort her into the dining room whilst Nick and Heath each escorted Audra and Rachel.

During the whole meal, Victoria studiously examined her son's pensive mood. He ate his food quietly and slowly, not saying a word during the whole meal, or, indeed, seeming responsive to any of the lively chatter around him.

Finally, when the meal was finished, and the family gathered once more in the living room, Victoria spoke up. "Heath, I don't know what's troubling you. But you are in the presence of family, and family are there to help bear the weight of burdens. It seems to me yours is too heavy for you to keep to yourself. What's on your mind? Maybe we can help."

Heath looked into her steady gaze, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat several times before he finally said, "I was reading the Stockton Eagle today. There's counterfeit money in circulation in one hundred dollar bills. Well, it was as I was reading that I bumped into Mr. Bridgeman."

"This happened in town then?"

"Yes, Mother, that's right. Well, anyway, in bumping into him, I guess I made him drop his briefcase. As he dropped it, it opened up. He quickly shut it again, but before he could, I saw what was inside."

Rachel was nearly falling off the edge of her seat in her anticipation. "What was inside?" she whispered in enthrallment.

"Row upon row of one hundred dollar bills!" Heath answered.

"And you can't help wondering if he is producing the counterfeit money?" Victoria asked calmly.

"Oh, I don't know. It sounds stupid now that it's said out loud – but the thought did occur to me."

"It certainly doesn't sound right!" Nick exclaimed. "Bridgeman, to some people, is the town. You know how much people look up to him. I don't know – it just doesn't seem right."

Audra shook her head slowly, her mouth parted in disbelief. "Are you sure, Heath?" she asked.

"No, I'm not," Heath answered. "But it's been on my mind all day. I can't seem to shake off the feeling that he could be!"

"Mr. Bridgeman a counterfeiter!" Rachel exclaimed. "How exciting!"

"It's not exciting Rachel, it's serious," Jarrod said. He turned to Heath. "It seems hard to believe, but I can look into it. Alright?"

"Thank you, Jarrod. I can't seem to believe it myself; but the way he acted … and why would he be carrying hundred dollar bills – hundreds of them – in his briefcase? He seemed to wonder if I suspected him – the way he looked at me, fumbled hurriedly for his case, and snatched the bill from me after he dropped it. There was something so distrustful about the way he acted – I just didn't like it. He seemed to be hiding something – he seemed to be hiding the contents of the case."

"But Mr. Bridgeman…" Victoria declared. "He's so popular – no one would believe you if you told anyone."

"That's why I was unsure about telling you. That's why I'm so grateful that you've listen to me like this without waving it off as if it couldn't even be considered."

"Counterfeiting is serious, though, so it's only right that I look into it," Jarrod said.

"Thanks again, Jarrod," Heath said smiling.

"Well," Victoria said. "I think that's enough about counterfeiters for one night. Rachel – I think you ought to go to bed."

"Yes Mother," Rachel said. "May I read a little?"

"Alright," Victoria consented, much to Rachel's delight. She quickly said goodnight to everyone and then hurried up to her room. After she had undressed and plaited her hair, she snuggled down under her covers with her book 'The Three Musketeers'.

Soon she was lost in a tale of mysterious plots – but when it was time to turn out her lamp, her mind turned back to what Heath had told the family. Mr. Bridgeman a counterfeit! How terribly thrilling! She was sure Heath was right. She had never liked that pompous man anyway, so here was a perfect excuse not to like him. She wriggled deeper into her bedcovers. Finally, she closed her eyes, and drifted off to sleep.

As the days went by, not much was said about Mr. Bridgeman. The family decided not to tie him with the counterfeit money until anything could be proven.

It was three days later, when Nick and Heath were in town getting some supplies, that their attention was drawn to a ruckus at the other end of town.

"What's going on?" Heath asked.

"I don't know – but let's find out," Nick said, with a nod of determination.

The two brothers wandered up to the commotion, where a few spectators had already gathered.

"I didn't do it!" a man was shouting. "I never heard of such a dumb thing!"

"Why, that's Scott Parson – one of our hands! What do they want with him?" Heath said.

"That's what I was thinking!" Nick said. "Come on."

Nick and Heath pushed their way through the crowd.

"What's all this about, Fred?" Nick asked the Sheriff, hands in his pockets. "He's one of our men – we have the right to know."

"This man here," Sheriff Madden said, insinuating to a stranger clad in a suit, "works for the Secret Service. He's found Scott Parson to be guilty of introducing counterfeit money into the chain of normal money."

"I didn't Mr. Barkley! I swear I didn't!" young Scott Parson yelled in fright.

"Oh, and where's your proof that he's guilty, Mister?" Nick demanded.

"I found one of those bills on him today," came the calm reply.

"Scott, where did you get the money?"

"I won it!" the boy replied. "I won it in a card game!"

"He had the money on him before the game!" the Secret Service agent said.

"No I didn't! You have no proof of that!" the boy said. "I won it, I say!"

"See! Besides, if they're already in circulation, you could blame anyone that happens to own a bill by accident. Heath here has more definite proof who is printing it. Go on, Heath – tell them! You saw all that money – that was proof enough!"

"No – there isn't enough proof Nick. Don't make me say!"

"If there's a suspect, then I ought to know," the agent said.

"Please Mr. Barkley! Please tell them! Don't let them put me behind bars!"

Heath hesitated. What should he do? No one would believe him.

"Ask Mr. Bridgeman. Maybe he can tell you!"

"Are you trying to blame Mr. Bridgeman for a foul crime like this?" a woman's voice sounded from the crowd.

"Shame on you for saying a thing like that!"

"And just to defend a boy who works for you!"

"May Mr. Bridgeman forgive you for lying against his good name!"

"No Barkley I ever knew told lies before!"

Heath stared into the frenzied crowd. "Thanks Nick!" he muttered before pushing his way through. Nick followed.

In a few words, the family's decision to keep it quiet had been overruled. By a few words, the town of Stockton had teamed up against Heath!

I hope you enjoyed! Things are just going to go from bad to worse, I can promise you! Please review and thanks for sparing the time to read!

Rachel D :-)